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English phonology is the study of the phonology (i.e., the sound system) of the English language. Like all other languages, spoken English has wide variation in its pronunciation both diachronically and synchronically from dialect to dialect. This variation is especially salient in English, because the language is spoken over such a wide territory, being the predominant language in Australia, Canadamarker, the Commonwealth Caribbean, Irelandmarker, New Zealandmarker, the United Kingdommarker and the United Statesmarker, in addition to being spoken as a first or second language by people in countries on every continent, notably South Africa and Indiamarker. In general, the regional dialects of English are mutually intelligible.

Although there are many dialects of English, the following are usually used as prestige or standard accents: Received Pronunciation for the United Kingdom, General American for the United States and General Australian for Australia.


See IPA chart for English dialects for concise charts of the English phonemes.

The number of speech sounds in English varies from dialect to dialect, and any actual tally depends greatly on the interpretation of the researcher doing the counting. The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary by John C. Wells, for example, using symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, denotes 24 consonants and 23 vowels used in Received Pronunciation, plus two additional consonants and four additional vowels used in foreign words only. For General American, it provides for 25 consonants and 19 vowels, with one additional consonant and three additional vowels for foreign words. The American Heritage Dictionary, on the other hand, suggests 25 consonants and 18 vowels (including r-colored vowels) for American English, plus one consonant and five vowels for non-English terms [84155].


The following table shows the consonant phonemes found in most dialects of English. When consonants appear in pairs, fortis consonants (i.e., aspirated or voiceless) appear on the left and lenis consonants (i.e., lightly voiced or voiced) appear on the right:

Consonant phonemes of English
  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Approximant 1, 2, 5 4
Lateral 1, 6
  1. Nasals and liquids may be syllabic in unstressed syllables, though these may be analyzed phonemically as .
  2. Postalveolar consonants are usually labialized (e.g., ), as is word-initial or pre-tonic /r/, though this is rarely transcribed.
  3. The voiceless velar fricative is dialectal, occurring largely in Scottish English. In other dialects, words with these sounds are pronounced with .
  4. The sequence /hw/, a voiceless labiovelar approximant , is sometimes considered an additional phoneme. For most speakers, words that historically used to have these sounds are now pronounced with ; the phoneme is retained, for example, in much of the American South and in Scotland.
  5. Depending on dialect, may be an alveolar , postalveolar approximant, or labiodental approximant.
  6. Many dialects have two allophones of —the "clear" L and the "dark" or velarized L. In some dialects, may be always clear or always dark.

pit bit
tin din
cut gut
cheap jeep
fat vat
thin then
sap zap
she measure
we map
left nap
run (also , ) yes
ham bang


Although regional variation is very great across English dialects, some generalizations can be made about pronunciation in all (or at least the vast majority) of English accents:

  • The voiceless stops are aspirated at the beginnings of words (for example tomato) and at the beginnings of word-internal stressed syllables (for example potato). They are unaspirated after /s/ (stan, span, scan) and at the ends of syllables.
  • For many people, is somewhat labialized in some environments, as in reed and tree . In the latter case, the may be slightly labialized as well.
  • In many dialects, becomes before , as in human .


The vowels of English differ considerably between dialects. Because of this, corresponding vowels may be transcribed with various symbols depending on the dialect under consideration. When considering English as a whole, no specific phonemic symbols are chosen over others; instead, lexical sets are used, each named by a word containing the vowel in question. For example, the vowel of the LOT set ("short o") is transcribed in Received Pronunciation, in Australian English, and in General American. For an overview of the correspondences, see IPA chart for English dialects.

Monophthongs of Received Pronunciation
Front Central Back
long short long short long short

Monophthongs of Australian English
Front Central Back
long short long short long short

The monophthong phonemes of General American differ in a number of ways from Received Pronunciation:
  1. Vowels are more equal in length, differing mainly in quality.
  2. The central vowel of nurse is rhotic or a syllabic .
  3. Speakers make a phonemic distinction between rhotic and non-rhotic .
  4. No distinction is made between and , nor for many speakers between these vowels and .

Reduced vowels occur in some unstressed syllables. (Other unstressed syllables may have full vowels, which some dictionaries mark as secondary stress.) The number of distinctions made among reduced vowels varies by dialect. In some dialects vowels are centralized but otherwise kept mostly distinct, while in Australia and many US dialects all reduced vowels collapse to a schwa . In Received Pronunciation, there is a distinct high reduced vowel, which the OED writes .

  • : roses (merged with in Australian English)
  • : Rosa’s, runner
  • : bottle
  • : button
  • : rhythm

English diphthongs
RP Australian American
GA Canadian
l'out 1
l'ight 1
l'eer ³
l'air ² ² ³
l'ure ² ³
  1. Canadian English exhibits allophony of and called Canadian raising. This phenomenon is also realized (especially for ) by many US speakers, notably in the Northeast, as well as in South Atlantic English and the Fensmarker of eastern England. In some areas, especially the Northeast US, ) actually shifts to /ʌɪ/.
  2. In Received Pronunciation, the vowels in lair and lure may be monophthongized to and respectively. Australian English speakers more readily monophthongize the former but it is listed here anyway.
  3. In rhotic dialects, words like pair, poor, and peer can be analyzed as diphthongs, although other descriptions analyze them as vowels with in the coda.

Reduced vowels

Linguists such as Ladefoged and Bolinger argue that vowel reduction is phonemic in English, and that there are two "tiers" of vowels in English, full and reduced; traditionally many English dictionaries have attempted to mark the distinction by transcribing unstressed full vowels as having "secondary" stress, though this was later abandoned by the Oxford English Dictionary. Though full unstressed vowels may derive historically from stressed vowels, either because stress shifted over time (such as stress shifting away from the final syllable of French loan words in British English) or because of loss or shift of stress in compound words or phrases (óverseas vóyage from overséas or óverséas plus vóyage), the distinction is not one of stress but of vowel quality (Bolinger 1989:351), and over time, if the word is frequent enough, the vowel will tend to reduce.

English has up to five reduced vowels, though this varies with dialect and speaker. Schwa is found in all dialects, and a rhotic schwa ("schwer") is found in rhotic dialects. Less common is a high reduced vowel ("schwi") (also " "); the two are distinguished by many people in Rosa's vs roses . More unstable is a rounded schwa, (also ); this contrasts for some speakers in a mission , emission , and omission . In words like following, the following vowel is preceded by a [w] even in dialects which do not otherwise have a rounded schwa: . A high rounded schwa (also " ") may be found in words such as into , though in many dialects this is not be distinguished from .

Though speakers vary, full and reduced unstressed vowels may contrast in pairs of words like Shogun and slogan , chickaree and chicory , Pharaoh and farrow (Bolinger 1989:348), Bantu and into (OED).


  • A distinction is made between tense and lax vowels in pairs like beet/bit and bait/bet, although the exact phonetic implementation of the distinction varies from accent to accent. However, this distinction collapses before .
  • Wherever originally followed a tense vowel or diphthong (in Early Modern English) a schwa offglide was inserted, resulting in centering diphthongs like in beer , in poor , in fire , in sour , and so forth. This phenomenon is known as breaking. The subsequent history depends on whether the accent in question is rhotic or not: In non-rhotic accents like RP the postvocalic was dropped, leaving and the like (now usually transcribed and so forth). In rhotic accents like General American, on the other hand, the sequence was coalesced into a single sound, a non-syllabic , giving and the like (now usually transcribed and so forth). As a result, originally monosyllabic words like those just mentioned came to rhyme with originally disyllabic words like seer, doer, higher, power.
  • In many (but not all) accents of English, a similar breaking happens to tense vowels before , resulting in pronunciations like for peel, for pool, for pail, and for pole.

Transcription variants

The choice of which symbols to use for phonemic transcriptions may reveal theoretical assumptions or claims on the part of the transcriber. English "lax" and "tense" vowels are distinguished by a synergy of features, such as height, length, and contour (monophthong vs. diphthong); different traditions in the linguistic literature emphasize different features. For example, if the primary feature is thought to be vowel height, then the non-reduced vowels of General American English may be represented as follows:

If, on the other hand, vowel length is considered to be the deciding factor, the following symbols may be chosen:
(This convention has sometimes been used because the publisher did not have IPA fonts available, though that is seldom an issue any longer.)

If vowel transition is taken to be paramount, then the chart may look like one of these:

General American full vowels,
vowel height distinctive
General American full vowels,
vowel length distinctive
General American full vowels,
vowel contour distinctive

(The transcriber at left assumes that there is no phonemic distinction between semivowelsand approximants, so that is equivalent to .)

Many linguists combine more than one of these features in their transcriptions, suggesting they consider the phonemic differences to be more complex than a single feature.


Stressis phonemic in English. For example, the words desertand dessertare distinguished by stress, as are the noun a 'record and the verb to record.Stressed syllables in English are louder than non-stressed syllables, as well as being longer and having a higher pitch.They also tend to have a fuller realization than unstressed syllables.

Examples of stress in English words, using boldface to represent stressed syllables, are holiday, alone, admiration, confidential, degree, and weaker.Ordinarily, grammatical words(auxiliary verbs, prepositions, pronouns, and the like) do not receive stress, whereas lexical words(nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) must have at least one stressed syllable.

English is a stress-timedlanguage. That is, stressed syllables appear at a roughly steady tempo, and non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this.

Traditional approaches describe English as having three degrees of stress: Primary, secondary, and unstressed. However, if stress is defined as relative respiratory force (that is, it involves greater pressure from the lungs than unstressed syllables), as most phoneticians argue, and is inherent in the word rather than the sentence (that is, it is lexical rather than prosodic), then these traditional approaches conflate two distinct processes: Stress on the one hand, and vowel reductionon the other. In this case, primary stress is actually prosodic stress, whereas secondary stress is simple stress in some positions, and an unstressed but not reduced vowel in others. Either way, there is a three-way phonemic distinction: Either three degrees of stress, or else stressed, unstressed, and reduced. The two approaches are sometimes conflated into a four-way 'stress' classification: primary(tonic stress), secondary(lexical stress), tertiary(unstressed full vowel), and quaternary(reduced vowel). See secondary stressfor details.

Initial-stress-derived nounsmean that stress changes in many English words came about between nounand verbsenses of a word. For example, a rebel(stress on the first syllable) is inclined to rebel(stress on the second syllable) against the powers that be. The number of words using this pattern as opposed to only stressing the second syllable in all circumstances doubled every century or so, now including the English words object, convict, and addict.


Prosodic stressis extra stress given to words when they appear in certain positions in an utterance, or when they receive special emphasis. It normally appears on the final stressed syllable in an intonation unit. So, for example, when the word admirationis said in isolation, or at the end of a sentence, the syllable rais pronounced with greater force than the syllable ad.(This is traditionally transcribed as .) This is the origin of the primary stress-secondary stress distinction. However, the difference disappears when the word is not pronounced with this final intonation.

Prosodic stress can shift for various pragmaticfunctions, such as focus or contrast. For instance, consider the dialogue
"Is it brunch tomorrow?"
"No, it's dinner tomorrow."

In this case, the extra stress shifts from the last stressed syllable of the sentence, to'morrow, to the last stressed syllable of the emphasized word, dinner.Compare
"I'm going tomorrow."
"I'm going tomorrow."
"It's dinner tomorrow."

Although grammatical words generally do not have lexical stress, they do acquire prosodic stress when emphasized. Compare ordinary
"Come in"!
with more emphatic
"Oh, do come in!"


Most languages of the world syllabify and sequences as and or , with consonants preferentially acting as the onset of a syllable containing the following vowel. According to one view, English is unusual in this regard, in that stressed syllables attract following consonants, so that and syllabify as and , as long as the consonant cluster is a possible syllable coda. In addition, according to this view, preferentially syllabifies with the preceding vowel even when both syllables are unstressed, so that occurs as . However, many scholars do not agree with this view.

Syllable structure

The syllable structurein English is (C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C), with a maximal example being strengths( , although it can be pronounced ). Because of an extensive pattern of articulatory overlap, English speakers rarely produce an audible release in consonant clusters. This can lead to cross-articulations that seem very much like deletions or complete assimilations. For example, hundred poundsmay sound like but X-ray and electropalatographic studies demonstrate that inaudible and possibly weakened contacts may still be made so that the second in hundred poundsdoes not entirely assimilate a labial place of articulation, rather the labial co-occurs with the alveolar one.

When a stressed syllable contains a pure vowel (rather than a diphthong), followed by a single consonant and then another vowel, as in holiday,many native speakers feel that the consonant belongs to the preceding stressed syllable, .However, when the stressed vowel is a long vowel or diphthong, as in admi'ration or pekoe, speakers agree that the consonant belongs to the following syllable: .Wells (1990) notes that consonants syllabify with the preceding rather than following vowel when the preceding vowel is the nucleus of a more salient syllable, with stressed syllables being the most salient, reduced syllables the least, and secondary stress / full unstressed vowels intermediate.But there are lexical differences as well, frequently with compound words but not exclusively.For example, in dolphin and selfish, he argues that the stressed syllable ends in ; in shellfish, the belongs with the following syllable: → vs → , where the is a little longer and the not reduced.Similarly, in toe-strap the in a full plosive, as usual in syllable onset, whereas in toast-rack the is in many dialects reduced to the unreleased allophone it takes in syllable codas, or even elided: → ; likewise nitrate → with a voiceless , vs night-rate → with a voiced .Cues of syllable boundaries include aspiration of syllable onsets and (in the US) flapping of coda (a tease → vs. at ease → ), epenthetic plosives like in syllable codas (fence → but inside → ), and r-colored vowels when the is in the coda vs. labialization when it is in the onset (key-ring → but fearing → ).


There is an on-going sound change (yod-dropping) by which as the final consonant in a clusteris being lost. In RP, words with and can usually be pronounced with or without this sound, e.g., or . For some speakers of English, including some British speakers, the sound change is more advanced and so, for example, in General Americanis also not present after , , , , , and . In Welsh Englishit can occur in more combinations, for example in .

The following can occur as the onset:Notes:
  1. In some American dialects (especially as spoken by children), and tend to affricate, so that tree resembles "chree", and dream resembles "jream". This is sometimes transcribed as and respectively, but the pronunciation varies and may, for example, be closer to and or with a fricative release similar in quality to the rhotic, ie. , , or , .
  2. Many clusters beginning with and paralleling native clusters beginning with are found initially in German and Yiddish loanwords, such as , , , , , (in words such as schlep, spiel, shtick, schmuck, schnapps, Shprintzen's). is found initially in the Hebrew loanword schwa. Before however, the native cluster is . The opposite cluster is found in loanwords such as Sri Lanka, but this can be nativized by changing it to .
  3. occurs in the Greek loanword sclerosis; there is also (sphragistics).

Other onsets
Certain English onsets appear only in contractions: e.g., (sblood), (sdein), and or (swoundsor dswounds).Some, such as (pshaw) or (fwoosh), can occur in interjections.An archaic voiceless fricative plus nasal exists, (fnese).

A few other onsets occur in further (anglicized) loan words, including (bwana), (moiré), (noire), (pueblo); (kvetch), (schvartze), (sthenics), (thlipsis), (Tver), (zloty), and (zwieback)

Some clusters of this type can be converted to regular English phonotactics by simplifying the cluster: e.g. (dziggetai), (Hrolf), (croissant), (pfennig), (phthalic), (tsunami), (voilà).

Others can be substituted by native clusters differing only in voice: (svelte), (sbirro), (sgraffito).


The following can occur as the nucleus:


Most, and in theory all, of the following except those which end with , , , , or can be extended with or representing the morpheme-s/z-. Similarly most, and in theory all, of the following except those which end with or can be extended with or representing the morpheme -t/d-.

 argues that a variety of syllable codas are possible in English, even   in words like entry   and sundry  , with   being treated as affricates along the lines of  . He argues that the traditional assumption that pre-vocalic consonants form a syllable with the following vowel is due to the influence of languages like French and Latin, where syllable structure is CVC.CVC regardless of stress placement. Disregarding such contentious cases, which do not occur at the ends of words, the following sequences can occur as the coda:

Note: For some speakers, a fricative before is elided so that these never appear phonetically: becomes , becomes , becomes .

Syllable-level rules

  • Both the onset and the coda are optional
  • at the end of an onset cluster ( , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ) must be followed by or
  • Long vowels and diphthongs are not found before except for the mimetic word boing!
  • is rare in syllable-initial position
  • Stop + before (all presently or historically ) are excluded
  • Sequences of + C1 + + C1, where C1 is a consonant other that and is a short vowel, are virtually nonexistent

Word-level rules

  • does not occur in stressed syllables
  • does not occur in word-initial position in native English words although it can occur syllable-initial, e.g., luxurious
  • occurs in word-initial position in a few obscure words: thew, thurible, etc.; it is more likely to appear syllable initial, e.g.
  • , , and, in rhotic varieties, can be the syllable nucleus (ie a syllabic consonant) in an unstressed syllable following another consonant, especially , , or
  • Certain short vowel sounds, called checked vowels, cannot occur without a coda in a single syllable word. In RP, the following short vowel sounds are checked: , , and .

History of English pronunciation

Around the late 14th century, English began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift, in which
  • the high long vowels and in words like price and mouth became diphthongized, first to and (where they remain today in some environments in some accents such as Canadian English) and later to their modern values and . This is not unique to English, as this also happened in Dutch (first shift only) and German (both shifts).

The other long vowels became higher:
  • became (for example meet),
  • became (later diphthongized to , for example name),
  • became (for example goose), and
  • become (later diphthongized to , for example bone).

Later developments complicate the picture: whereas in Geoffrey Chaucer's time food, good, and bloodall had the vowel and in William Shakespeare's time they all had the vowel , in modern pronunciation goodhas shortened its vowel to and bloodhas shortened and lowered its vowel to in most accents. In Shakespeare's day (late 16th-early 17th century), many rhymeswere possible that no longer hold today. For example, in his play The Taming of the Shrew, shrewrhymed with woe.


æ-tensingis a phenomenon found in many varieties of American Englishby which the vowel has a longer, higher, and usually diphthongalpronunciation in some environments, usually to something like . Some American accents, for example that of New York City or Philadelphia, make a marginal phonemic distinction between and although the two occur largely in mutually exclusive environments.

Bad-lad split

The bad-lad splitrefers to the situation in some varieties of southern English Englishand Australian English, where a long phoneme in words like badcontrasts with a short in words like lad.

Cot-caught merger

The cot-caughtmerger is a sound change by which the vowel of words like cot, rock, and doll( in New England, elsewhere) is pronounced the same as the vowel of words like caught, talk, and tall( ). This merger is widespread in North American English, being found in approximately 40% of Americanspeakers and virtually all Canadianspeakers.

Father-bother merger

The father-bother mergeris the pronunciation of the short O in words such as "bother" identically to the broad A of words such as "father", nearly universal in all of the United States and Canada save New Englandand the Maritime provinces; many American dictionaries use the same symbol for these vowels in pronunciation guides.

See also


  1. Wells, Accents of English, Cambridge University Press
  2. Peter Ladefoged (1975 etc.) A course in phonetics
  3. Dwight Bolinger (1989) Intonation and its uses
  4. Syllabification and allophony
  5. The OED also lists a few unassimilated foreign words such as Burmese aung
  6. The OED does not list any native words that begin with , apart from mimetic oof!, ugh! oops! ook(y)


External links

General American full vowels,
vowel contour distinctive
General American full vowels,
height & length distinctive
All single consonant phonemes except  
Plosive plus approximant other than :
,  ,  ,  ,

, , [1], [1], , ,

, , ,
play, blood, clean, glove, prize, bring, tree[1], dream[1], crowd, green, twin, dwarf, guacamole, quick
Voiceless fricative plus approximant other than :[2]
,  ,

, , ,

, ,
floor, sleep, friend, three, shrimp, swing, thwart, which
Consonant plus :
,  ,  ,  ,  ,  ,

, , , , ,

, , ,
pure, beautiful, tube, during, cute, argue, music, new, few, view, thew, suit, Zeus, huge, lurid
/s/ plus voiceless plosive:[2]
, ,
speak, stop, skill
/s/ plus nasal:[2]
smile, snow
/s/ plus voiceless fricative:

/s/ plus voiceless plosive plus approximant:[2][3]

, , ,

, , , ,
split, spring, street, scream, square, smew, spew, student, skewer
The single consonant phonemes except , , and, in non-rhotic varieties,  
Lateral approximant + plosive or affricate: , , , , , , help, bulb, belt, hold, belch, indulge, milk
In rhotic varieties, + plosive or affricate: , , , , , , , harp, orb, fort, beard, arch, large, mark, morgue
Lateral approximant + fricative: , , , , golf, solve, wealth, else, Welsh
In rhotic varieties, + fricative: , , , , dwarf, carve, north, force, marsh
Lateral approximant + nasal: , film, kiln
In rhotic varieties, + nasal or lateral: , , arm, born, snarl
Nasal + homorganic plosive or affricate: , , , , , jump, tent, end, lunch, lounge, pink
Nasal + fricative: , in non-rhotic varieties, , , , in some varieties triumph, warmth, month, prince, bronze, length
Voiceless fricative + voiceless plosive: , , , left, crisp, lost, ask
Two voiceless fricatives: fifth
Two voiceless plosives: , opt, act
Plosive + voiceless fricative: , , , , , , depth, lapse, eighth, klutz, width, adze, box
Lateral approximant + two consonants: , , , , , sculpt, twelfth, waltz, whilst, mulct, calx
In rhotic varieties, + two consonants: , , , , , warmth, excerpt, corpse, quartz, horst, infarct
Nasal + homorganic plosive + plosive or fricative: , , , , , in some varieties prompt, glimpse, thousandth, distinct, jinx, length
Three obstruents: , sixth, next

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